Towards a New Demonology

Towards a New Demonology

Steven Connor

What follows is the text of a paper given at the Becoming Human conference held at Birkbeck College, London, 25th September 1998. It is copyright Steven Connor, 1998.

We are accustomed to think of what Jean Bodin called the `demonomania’ of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries in Europe as the expression of a wave of irrationality, unleashing itself in the form of a gynocidal frenzy directed at women and various forms of outsider, and legitimating a judicial savagery on a massive scale. I will be saying later that I think we need to find cause to wonder a little more at our credulity regarding the credulity of other epochs and cultures. For the moment, I will content myself with drawing attention to a strikingly persistent sub-theme which accompanies writings on witchcraft, demonology and spirit possession, namely, the difficulty of distinguishing real from pretended effects. It has always been obvious to even the most credulous viewers how easy it is to counterfeit the signs of possession: the roaring, foaming, convulsion, the disgorging of pins, the ventriloquial voices from the belly. Exorcists were thus at pains, not only to specify measures for the expulsion of demons, but also to distinguish the infallible signs of real as opposed to counterfeited possession, signs which, of course made the job of the counterfeit much easier, and the necessity of testing the reality of the demon all the more imperative.

Why does the demon become powerful at the very moment at which it becomes dubious? Because simulation, counterfeit, doubt and indeterminacy are at the heart of and of the nature of the demonic. Basing himself on the demonology of the severe second-century Latin Christian Tertullian, who was himself later in his life to embrace the ecstatic doctrines and practices of Montanism, Pierre Klossowski offers a more doctrinally-based account of why this should be so. The demon, he says,

reveals his demonic tendency by his contradictory aspiration to be in order to cease to be, to be in order to be no longer, to be in not being…The demonic spirit must borrow another being than its own, because it disowns being; being itself pure negation, it needs another existence to exercise its negation. It can do this only with respect to creatures who, without intrinsic being, have received being. The spirit seeks to associate with such creatures in order to experience its own contradictoriness, its own existence in inexistence…This, in broad outline, is the traditional idea of the demon; having no personality of its own, he is without inclination, and can exert influence only by means of a borrowed existence. {1}

The one simulating the signs of demonic possession is hard to distinguish from the real victim of demonic possession, because possession is an act of simulation; the one who pretends to have a devil, pretends to have been occupied by a spirit whose nature it is to pretend to existence. This means that even the simulator is genuinely occupied by the spirit of counterfeit. The practice of simulating possession is seen as the work of the devil.

This also explains why it is that Protestant sensibilities are so much more in awe of the demonic than Catholics in the late sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. On the whole, Protestants like the Bishop of London, Samuel Harsnett, who mounted a campaign in the early 1600s to banish the practice of exorcism from the English Church, as unholy, pagan and politically subversive, did not attach much credence either to the power of demons, or to the pretended power of the priests who claimed to dismiss them. Harsnett published his Declaration of Egregious Popish Impostures in 1603 in order to discredit some contemporary Protestant exorcisms by comparing them to some spectacular exorcisms practised by recusant Catholic priests under the leadership of one William Weston some fifteen years previously. {2} Harsnett’s horror at the absurd mummeries of Catholic exorcisms, is a horror at the devilishness of demonic pretence. There can be no absolute distinction between real and counterfeit demons when counterfeit itself appears so demonic.

Et quis haec daemon? And who was the devil, the brocher, herald, and perswader of these unutterable treasons, but Weston the Jesuit, the chief plotter and arch-impostor, Dibdale the priest, or Stemp, or all the holy Covey of the twelve devilish comedians in their several turnes? For there was neither devil nor urchin nor Elfe but themselves, who did metamorphoze themselves in every scene into the person eyther of the devil himselfe or of his Interpreter; and made the devils name their Puppet, to squeak, pipe, and fume out what they pleased to inspire…O lamentable desolation! Weston and his twelve Priests doe play the devils themselves, and all to grace from hel (being now forsaken of heaven), their pope, their Masse, their Sacraments, their Medalls, their agnus dei, their charmes, their enchauntments, their conjurations, their reliques, their hellish sorceries. {3}

Much rested on the vexed question of the propriety of what Harsnett called `dialoguizing with the devil’. Even Catholics in France were divided over the question of whether, given the reality of a demonic possession, one should allow the demon to speak, and hold converse with it. The more enthusiastic Catholic exorcists enthusiastically drew or drove the demon into utterance, in order either to score sectarian points (Catholic devils are always boasting of their intimate relations with Huguenots), or to demonstrate the necessity even for demons to acknowledge the apostolic power of the Catholic priest, as the representative of Christ, or the magical sanctity of the host and other holy objects.

As Michel de Certeau has argued, a place is always prepared for the demon in discourse before it begins to speak. {4} The demon is expelled from discourse precisely by being taken into it; made to speak, and to name itself, before silence can be enjoined upon it. The victims of possession, who sometimes began their episodes claiming to have a `good’ possession, by an angel, or the Holy Ghost, knew full well that for their devils to be made to speak was the beginning of the end. For Protestants, the ceding of a voice to the devil was regarded as extremely dangerous; for Catholics, the giving of a voice was the submission of the devil to rule and rote. The procès-verbal of exorcism performed on 24 November 1632 during the famous possessions at Loudun records the following: `M. Barré holds up the Host and asks the devil, “Quem adoras?” Answer: “Jesus Christus“. Whereupon M. Daniel Drouyn, Assessor of the Provost’s Office, said in a rather loud voice, “This devil is not congruous.” The exorcist then changed his question to, “Quis est iste quem adoras?” She answered, “Jesu Christe.” Upon which several persons remarked, “What bad Latin!” But the exorcist retorted that she had said, “Adoro te, Jesu Christe.” ‘ {5}The devil is drawn into the human, in order to be the more satisfactorily expelled from it. Once the devil has a name and a number (Catholics were keen on multiple possessions, and on identifying all the participants in a particular case), its days were numbered.

If demonic possession shows the extreme vulnerability of the human being to invasion, discourse can enact the capacity of the human being to tolerate and contain this invasion. At one end of this process we might instance the story from Plutarch’s Lives of the confrontation of Brutus with his demon, which Samuel Harsnett retells admiringly in the Declaration. Marcus Brutus is in his tent, poring over maps and documents on the night before the battle of Philippi. Suddenly a foul, terrifying being appears before him, and when he enquires whether it be god or demon, replies sum malus tuus genius, I am your evil spirit. He threatens `You will see me tomorrow on the fields of Philippi’ – cras Philippis me videbis. Brutus looks at the demon, returns the one word – videbo – `I will see you’, and falls to his reading with never a goodnight to the discomfited demon.{6} This isnot just another proof of the usefulness of a bit of sprightly Latin in cutting demons down to size. Brutus does not merely deny the demon, but defers his encounter with him. To borrow the demon’s words is to acknowledge the demon, acknowledging that he is indeed the form of Brutus’s fear and shame; but it is also to be able to keep him at a distance, an internal distance. In returning the word videbis in the form videbo, Brutus turns a necessity into an act of personal decision: `You will have no choice but to see me’, becoming `I will consent to see you, but not now’. Discourse allows the appalled and fascinating inundation of seeing to be broken up, to be articulated: the word videbo is accompanied by a looking away, and names a way of looking that is not seeing. For Brutus, and for Harsnett, the devil is not purely endogenous, not merely the projection of Brutus’s fears and rage; but he is an outside that is kept at bay by being taken inside, by a self that is determinately divided, that includes and contains its self-divisions.

Catholic exorcists attempted to drive the devil out. Protestants, fearing that driving the devil out only succeeded in summoning it up, attempted to exorcise exorcism. In the long run, they would both succeed. Inexorably, demons lost their power to enact the invasion of the human by the non-human, or the power of the human to be the vehicle or scene of the non-human. The rituals of exorcism remained – most particularly, as Monique Schneider has argued, in psychoanalysis {7} – but the possessing agency became less and less inhuman. The difference between archaic and modern conceptions of the demon lies not so much in where demons are supposed to have come from – from outside or inside the nature of the human, from hell or from the mind – as in where they are supposed to go to. Archaic demons are spewed out, exiting spectacularly from the nose, mouth, ears or fundament, and cast into outer darkness, thus acting out the establishment of a bracing boundary between the human and the inhuman; modern demons are acknowledged, incorporated, ingested: rehabilitated.

In the Judaeo-Christian adoption of demons, the human surges up out of its encounter with the nonhuman. The development of procedures for disposing of devils is only the first step in a process that will be further refined and diversified, and will involve first of all distinctions between the human and the animal, the human and the mechanical, and the human and the divine, and then distinctions between the human and the less-than-human within human beings themselves; the mad, the monstrous, the evil, the infantile. In all of these distinctions, the demonic will have its place. For only the demon will be capable of sustaining the idea of transcendence or otherness passing as, and passing into the human; because it operates in and on the human, the demonic cannot fail to become human. Aldous Huxley suggests that the experience of possession is explained at different moments by different identifications of the possessing agency:

[N]eurotics who, at an earlier epoch, would have attributed their malady to devils, were inclined, after the rise of the Fox Sisters, to lay the blame on the discarnate souls of evil men and women. With the recent advances in technology, the notion of possession has taken a new form. Neurotic patients often complain that they are being influenced, against their will, by some kind of radio messages transmitted by their enemies. The Malicious Animal Magnetism which haunted poor Mrs Eddy’s imagination for so many years has now been transformed into Malicious Electronics. {8}

If we extend Huxley’s series backwards to include the experience of Old Testament prophets who heard the voices of God and of angels, and forwards to include the contemporary craze for alien abduction, its declensive logic becomes clearer: Gods beget devils, who beget spirits, who beget aliens. At each stage, it appears, the agency of the possession becomes less and less exalted, more and more materialised. At each stage the invasive, but intensely desired otherness becomes more vulgarised and materialised, and more humanised. The end of this process of incorporation of the inhuman is an habilitation of the demon, the creation of the veritable `familiar spirit’, who speaks in propria persona and in his own voice, in Anne Rice’s Interview With A Vampire.

The freeing of human reason from the threat of the devil on the outside, identifies an even more dangerous threat to reason and sanity on the inside, in the endogenous tendency of the human mind to entangle itself in fantasy, imposture and illusion. Already, For Samuel Harsnett, our power to delude ourselves, by simulating devils, conjuring them out of nothing, is even more dangerous than the alleged powers of the devil itself. The devil can no longer be lodged in and chased around the body; locked up in the toe, or driven out through the nostrils or anus. In later periods, we will find that where discourse was previously the means employed to substantiate, identify and dismiss the demon from the body, the demon begins to take up residence in the body of discourse itself, as it circulates between the subject of possession, the exorcist, and the historian of the possession. When devils become merely figurative, figurality can start to seem demonic. Rather than devils being drawn into dialogue, dialogue itself starts to have a devilish aspect. As the power of the demon is both driven out and driven further in; the demon is not an outlaw, but a virus. All of this occurs within the sphere of the human, which prides itself on the fact that it contains its own borderlines, is capable of ingesting its own unthought. Nothing inhuman, we might say, varying the ditty of Terence, is foreign to me.

Our predicament, the predicament which both instances and calls for the new demonology of my title, is one in which the demonic has become a general principle of human being and definition, but will not consent to be named and held in place. We have become in the West a society of ecstatic submission to powers, presences, influences and fascinations, whose names are Legion, and all of which act as a guarantee of the capacity at once to be exposed to and to be able to hold together in the face of that which exceeds and besieges us. The more familiar these alien powers and fascinations become, the more indistinguishable from our own impulses and suceptibilities, the more they must be demonised. Inexorably, as one demon is named and tamed (let us say, homosexuality) another must be produced to take its place: cultism, conspiracy, terrorism, addiction, fanaticism, superstition.

I suggested that Harsnett finds demonic power, not in demons themselves, in whom he can scarcely bring himself to believe, but in the credulity of others regarding the demon. We may have grown so desperately numb in the face of the collapse of hysterical display, in the habituation of hysteria, that we need to produce the fantasy of the other who is subject to the power of possession, to secure the possibility of demonic danger to us. Whenever our military leaders are looking for a reason to send the bombers in, we are sure to see the image of chanting frenzied crowds. We may confusedly think we are securing ourselves against that demon, or even perhaps in the long run rescuing them from it; in fact, we are securing ourselves through the possibility of the demonic that they enact. Our magical need to believe in the belief in magic is too intense to be given up. In the waning of the belief in our capacity to be threatened by the demon, it may be enough to conjure up the possibility that there are others who are thus threatened. This has an historical dimension too; we speak of our own longing for possession through our contemporary fascination with the lure of possession and the demonic in other periods. The flood of narratives of possession, from Invasion of the Body Snatchers onwards, through the Omen films, the Friday 13th sequence, the stories of alien abduction is accompanied by representations of the Victorian supernatural, from the fairies of Conan Doyle, through to the fascination with mesmerism in novels like Alias Grace and Jack Maggs, along with the revival of interest in seances and spiritualism. The haunting is, we might say, transactive, rather than transitive: it is we who are haunted or obsessed with the belief that others might have been haunted and obsessed.

In all this the demon threatens to lose his name and shape, precisely through being generalised and familiarised. In philosophical thinking, the demon becomes associated with impersonal forces which haunt and thwart the power of rational self-determination: with illusion and error in Descartes; with the operations of chance in Maxwell’s demon, with will and power in Schopenhauer and Nietzsche, and sexuality in popular Freudianism; and finally, perhaps, with Serres’s parasite. Where previously it had been the demon which interfered with the system, now, it is the human which represents the principle of noise, disruption or interference. Where previously the role of the demon was to mark the outside, or the limits of the human – for Origen, the very air, the space between earth and heaven, swarmed with demons and other invisible entities – suddenly the human has become identified with the human. The human is now the counterfeiter, the defector, the riddling exception. But the more we become the demon, the less use the demon is in guaranteeing the human.

Thus we arrive at a situation in which the desire for the charism of possession is generalised, in which the human borrows its power to be from the power of being borrowed. Our problem is a problem of names. Ours are immanent and ubiquitous demons, which we fear may no longer submit themselves to be named and personified. The evidence of this problem is is to be found precisely in its insufficient solution, in the multiplication of powerful names, or names of power. I might focus on any one of the names which have been given to the demon in the human; sexuality, language, technology, desire, DNA, the `evil demon of images’, all of those `inhuman’ forces which are said to undermine or surpass the human, and in doing so, secure it.

I want to focus on one of those names of power in particular; power itself, the Beelzebub of inhuman agencies. Of course, the operations of the demonic always focuses questions of power. In asking what the demon is, or means, we are asking what its power over us may be, as well as what the power for us may be of the conception of the demon. In fact, of course, the approved contemporary manner of interpreting the history of possession, demonic magic, bewitchment and exorcism, is precisely in terms of the operations of power. Just as the demon must be compelled to cough up its name, so historical analysis compels the stories of possession and witchcraft to yield up their implications in terms of power. Possession trials are shown to be nothing more, and nothing less, than power plays; displays of power that are at once dumbshow and reality, playacting that leads to the noose and the stake. The same goes for nineteenth-century stagings of hysteria, whether in the Sâlpetrière or University College London, or in the consulting rooms of Freud and Breuer. In previous eras, it was believed that the powerful name of Jesus Christ was enough to compel submission on the part of the demon, submission to the holy name, and submission to its own name.

What if the demon were not so easily to be dispelled in the name of power? What, in short, if power were itself demonic in its structure, that is to say dependent on the paradoxical intercourse of being and non-being, counterfeit and reality, which defines the demon, or is the demon’s trace? Just as, for a former age, it was possible neither to entertain a coherent notion of what the devil was, nor to do without the idea of the devil, so, for our age, it is impossible to entertain a coherent notion of what power is, nor to abandon the notion that there must, at all costs, always be power. Now, our desire for there to be power is demonic in two senses; first of all in the form which we imagine that power takes; and secondly, in the demonic form of our imagining. We think of power as a pure, agentless, inhuman force, a force exercised upon and through the human, but which is not in itself human. Power must therefore be curbed, controlled, channelled, made visible and answerable. Power must be given a substantial and punctual form, and concentrated in certain places and persons. But the reason for this is precisely the growing unavailability of power in the archaic, infantile, magical form in which we need it to exist. We need there to be power, which is to say, the prosopopoeia of power. Just as in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, it was necessary for there to be persons in the power of the devil, in order that the power over the devil be demonstrable, so we need there to be persons who are more and more undeniably and more and more visibly in what we beautifully call `in power’, or `in positions of power’.

Demonic possession is a curious way of proving power by its inversion, a way of claiming or confirming the charism of power in submission to a greater force; think of the fascinating acts of public abasement, ridiculous and daring at once, of figures who claim power in powerlessness: Princess Diana, President Clinton. Or think also of the curiously relieved participation of male feminists in the ritual abasement and demonisation of masculinity, the group in society who can receive the rage that has been politely withheld from previously softer targets like Jews, women, cripples and ugly people. One female columnist in a mainstream newspaper a month or so ago remarked casually that she had no difficulty in dealing with men as long as she remembered to bring her hammer. (The motif of the hammer, neatly joins the fifteenth-century Malleus Maleficarum to the demonic demon-seeker Peter Sutcliffe.) Men are, I think, much less worried by losing power, than by losing the chance of being `in power': by denying power, by embracing the voluptuous condition of powerlessness and hurt, one remains the vehicle or instance of power. It does not matter who has the phallus – another eminently demonological conception – as long as somebody does, or somebody once did. The loss of power is the best proof that it must once have existed, and must still exist somewhere else. What matters is not that anyone has power, but that there is power. What matters is not that there are subjects and objects of power, but that there be bearers of power.

And yet, just as for Harsnett and those who unwittingly inaugurated the new regime of the demon, the power of the demon is the power of human reason to make itself powerless before counterfeits of its own making, so the power of the idea of power consists in the acts of representation which act as a magical prophylactic against the fear that power may be dissipated by those very acts of representation. Or, in short: we need human bearers of the inhuman force of power, lest the bracing force of the inhuman vanish altogether.

All that would remain would be for me to define a new demonology in the exposure and denunciation of this new demonism, to call for an end, like Samnuel Harsnett, to this infantile mummery, this submission of our human reason and responsibility to fantasms of inhuman powers that are powerful in proportion to their unreality. To exorcise the demon of dependence upon demons, dispel the magical power of the stubborn need for magic. Wo es war, soll ich gewesen. Where the it was, there shall I be. Where demons seemed to swarm, there shall we come into our own. Only by first looking the seeming inhuman full in the face, will we be able at last to avert our eyes from its fascination, so that, tomorrow, we can become human. We will see.

(And yet isn’t that…? Wasn’t that…? Oh, nothing.)


1. Pierre Klossowski, `Gide, du Bos et le démon’, in Un si funeste désir (Paris: Gallimard, 1994), pp. 39-40. (My translation.) Back to Text

2. The complex relations between Harsnett’s text and the disputes about exorcism in England during the late 1590s and early 1600s are discussed in Corinne Holt Rickert, The Case of John Darrell: Minister and Exorcist (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1962); D.P Walker, Unclean Spirits: Possession and Exorcism in France and England in the Late Sixteenth and Early Seventeenth Centuries (London: Scolar Press, 1981) and Stephen Greenblatt, `Shakespeare and the Exorcists’, in After Strange Texts: The Role of Theory in the Study of Literature, ed. Gregory S. Jay and David L. Miller (Alabama: University of Alabama Press, 1985), pp. 101-23 and `London and Loudun’ , Critical Inquiry, 12 (1986): 326-46. I discuss the dislocations and locations of voice in these and other contemporary possession cases in my Ventriloquies: A Cultural History of the Dissociated Voice (Oxford: Oxford University Press, forthcoming). Back to Text

3. Samuel Harsnett, A Declaration of egregious popish impostures, to with-draw the harts of her Majesties subjects from their alleagance and from the truth of Christian religion professed in England, under the pretence of casting out devils (London: printed by James Roberts, 1603). Reprinted in F.W. Brownlow, Shakespeare, Harsnett, and the Devils of Denham (Newark: University of Delaware Press; London and Toronto: Associated University Presses, 1996), pp. 322, 333. Harsnett found the story in Plutarch’s Life of Marcus Brutus, ch. 16; see Makers of Rome: Nine Lives by Plutarch,, trans. Ian Scott-Kilvert (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1965), pp. 254-5. Back to Text

4. Michel de Certeau, `Discourse Disturbed’, The Writing of History, trans. Tom Conley (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), pp. 244-68. Back to Text

5. Aldous Huxley, The Devils of Loudun (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1971), p. Back to Text

6. Harsnett, Declaration, p. 306. Back to Text

7. Monique Schneider, De l’exorcisme à la psychanalyse: le féminine expurgé (Paris: Retz, 1979). Back to Text

8. Huxley, Devils of Loudun, p. 173. Back to Text